On February 24, 2021, the day before the House of Representatives passed the Equality Act by a vote of 224-206, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene stole the headlines. First Greene attempted to delay the Act’s passage by filing a motion to adjourn; later, back at her office, she posted a sign that read: “There are TWO genders: MALE & FEMALE. ‘Trust The Science!’”
The next television news cycle focused more than twice as much attention on Greene’s intolerant opposition as on the House’s passage of the legislation, which would extend civil rights protections to LGBTQ people by prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity.
The disproportionate news coverage epitomizes a number of significant patterns — and problems — in news coverage of the Equality Act, which became woefully apparent throughout the course of the three-year study that we recently completed concerning television and newspaper stories about the legislation.
Centering the Equality Act
News coverage of the Equality Act is important for several reasons. First and foremost, an alarming majority of Americans, including a large percentage of those in the LGBTQ community, are unaware of the lack of LGBTQ federal protections, according to a report by GLAAD, a media monitoring organization that advocates for LGBTQ equality. Lack of awareness of the patchwork of legal protection hinders LGBTQ communities’ ability to advocate for greater equity and inclusion. Furthermore, the corporate media have consistently failed to emphasize how the Equality Act will expand existing federal civil rights protections for members of other marginalized groups, including people of color, women, immigrants, and religious minorities.
We analyzed television and newspaper coverage of the Equality Act from March 2019 through March 2021 as part of an ongoing project examining anti-LGBTQ biases in news reporting and online content. Television and print news coverage has marginalized the Equality Act, while social media platforms including Facebook have circulated virulent disinformation about it.
Intolerance on Television
Coverage of the Equality Act by major news organizations has been sparse and lacking in context. Inadequate coverage of this landmark piece of civil rights legislation follows a general downward trend in coverage of LGBTQ-related news, as reported by Real Clear Politics in 2019. The problematic patterns of coverage documented in that report have persisted under the new Biden administration.
We examined television coverage of the Equality Act, from March 3, 2019, through March 4, 2021, using the Television News Archive. We found that MSNBC covered the Equality Act 40 percent more often than Fox News and 35 percent more frequently than CNN. By contrast, Fox News devoted 87 percent more airtime than other networks to coverage of “religious freedom” issues. As other commentators have noted, when we examined Fox’s coverage of “religious freedom” concerns, we found thinly veiled homophobic and transphobic positions presented as newsworthy content.
Reviewing clips of Fox News showed that the network did indeed cover the Equality Act, but that coverage consistently highlighted anti-LGBTQ rhetoric and falsehoods. Fox featured news segments promoting claims that the legislation would undermine parental and conscience rights, lead to the “death” of women’s sports, and erase protections for religious freedom. Too frequently, inflammatory language and fear mongering (for example, referring to the bill as the “women’s cancellation act,” for example) plagued most TV coverage of the Equality Act, promoting not only opposition to it but also the dehumanization of transgender people.
Less strident TV outlets, such as CNN, often marginalized the Equality Act, mentioning it only in passing, neglecting to provide relevant background, and rarely including members of the LGBTQ community as featured sources.
According to GLAAD’s 2021 Media Report Card, Fox News along with CNN deserved failing grades because their coverage of the Equality Act failed to include LGBTQ voices while providing prominent platforms for transphobic rhetoric. Both news agencies failed to cover the history of the Equality Act, the earliest iteration of which dates back to 1974.
Eclipsed Print Coverage
The nation’s most prominent newspapers have marginalized the Equality Act. A mere 92 news items across 734 days of reporting by the Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post even mentioned the Equality Act, according to ProQuest’s US News Dailies database.
When those newspapers have covered the Equality Act, their reporting typically frames the legislation as less important than other related topics. For example, 20 percent of coverage that made mention of the Equality Act focused on how it might impact the 2020 elections; 13 percent focused on music celebrity Taylor Swift and her political activism; and nearly 12 percent highlighted the Supreme Court’s June 2020 decision banning workplace discrimination against LGBTQ workers’ rights. Just under 23 percent of newspaper coverage focused on the Equality Act as a newsworthy item in its own right.
Roughly one in four newspaper items mentioning the Equality Act identified it by name only, without any account of it. Somewhat more frequently newspaper coverage provided minimal descriptions of the legislation, but no more than that. For instance, a January 2020 New York Times article reported that the legislation would “prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.” Minimal descriptions of the Equality Act do little to inform newspapers’ readers about the legislation’s specifics or significance.
Slightly more than one in three news items provided details about the Equality Act’s legislative history. Only rarely did such coverage note how then-majority leader Mitch McConnell refused to allow the Senate to vote on the Act after the House passed it by 236-173 in May 2019.
The paucity of substantive reporting about the Equality Act creates a vacuum that conservative demagogues with homophobic and transphobic agendas have been more than ready to fill.
Fear Mongering on Social Media
Between October 2020 and March 2021, twenty-nine of the forty most popular news articles on Facebook about the Equality Act originated from Breitbart, the Daily Wire and other extreme-right news outlets, according to data from BuzzSumo. The news articles with the highest engagement (including likes, comments and shares) on Facebook not only opposed the Equality Act, they propagated false and offensive claims (referring to “the end of females”) and misleading perspectives (claiming that the Equality Act “Viciously Attacks Christians, Freedom, Society, Sex, And You”).
With a staggering 807k Facebook engagements, the leading article, published by the New York Post, repeated false claims about the legislation’s threats to women’s rights and religious conscience rights, arguing that its passage would “persecute those who don’t embrace newfangled gender ideologies.”
The Daily Wire, which specializes in anti-LGBTQ bigotry, has a documented wide reach through its network of covert Facebook pages, which boosts the engagement of its hateful content across the platform in a coordinated fashion.
Better News: Providing Context, Checking Hateful Rhetoric, Maintaining Focus
The nation’s major news outlets have recurrently failed to inform Americans about the Equality Act. Without more prominent, substantive news coverage, a majority of uninformed Americans are unlikely to pressure their senators to support the Equality Act.
Worse yet, due to widespread circulation via social media of virulent and misleading opposition to it, a smaller but outspoken minority of misinformed Americans will likely embrace the distorted claims and divisive opposition of elected officials such as Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene and Sen. Lindsey Graham, who told Fox News that he would filibuster until he collapsed “to make sure that the Equality Act doesn’t become law.”
Our previous research documents that while Donald Trump was president corporate news not only failed to provide historical context for understanding LGBTQ issues but also whitewashed anti-LGBTQ advocates’ most hateful statements. From 2019 to the present, the most prominent news outlets’ coverage of the Equality Act confirms that these biases in news coverage — while amplified during Trump’s presidency — persist, largely unchecked, under Biden’s administration.
Providing context for the Equality Act is essential to mobilizing support for it. Reporters covering congressional and public debate about passage of the Equality Act must do more to inform their audiences that the majority of LGBTQ Americans live in states that offer them no protections from discrimination. Ironically, this misunderstanding may be compounded by the Supreme Court’s landmark decisions in June 2020, which established important and overdue protections against workplace discrimination, but did not provide protections against anti-LGBTQ discrimination in housing, credit, education, federally funded programs, and other fundamental areas of everyday life.
Corporate coverage of the Equality Act also fails to contextualize the current balance of power between the judicial and legislative branches when it comes to LGBTQ protections. Although news coverage has focused on how Trump stacked the courts with conservative appointees, the TV and newspaper reports we studied failed to connect the dots between one legacy of Trump’s presidency — that nearly 40 percent of the federal judges Trump appointed to the courts of appeals have “a demonstrated history of hostility towards the LGBTQ+ community” — and the increased necessity of federal protections such as the Equality Act would provide. Schoolchildren learn to understand the interdependence of the government’s executive, legislative and judicial branches, but when it comes to covering the need for LGBTQ protections, reporters at the nation’s most prominent news outlets appear to be flummoxed.
Fear fuels ignorance, which powers hate. Our analysis of the most popular articles about the Equality Act on social media exposes a thinly veiled version of this logic. Under the guises of religious freedom and the rights of women and girls, opponents of the Equality Act who fear the consequences of providing basic everyday protections to LGBTQ Americans seek to undermine popular support for the Equality Act by pressuring conservative senators to oppose it.
News coverage guided by ethical standards — including the commitments to seek and report truth and to minimize harm — ought to inform us about Marjorie Taylor Greene’s belief that “the science” proves gender is binary, and Lindsey Graham’s fear of the Equality Act “destroying the difference between men and women.” But ethical journalism is not achieved simply by reporting powerful public figures’ provocative, prejudicial views.
In such cases, reporting the truth and minimizing harm go hand-in-hand: Reporters can and should call out the fallacies embedded in Greene’s and Graham’s harmful rhetoric. Doing so fulfills rather than undermines reporters’ commitments to ethical journalism.
But even calling out Greene’s misunderstanding of “the science” will not necessarily recenter attention on the Equality Act itself. Prejudiced public figures can sustain criticism and nevertheless succeed in distracting public attention from compelling arguments in favor of the Act. We should call out news coverage and online platforms that allow virulent fearmongers and their reckless claims to set the news agenda.